Nokia to buy and open source Symbian

Nokia have announced their intentions to buy Symbian and open source it. It’s being seen widely as a response to Google’s Android, also an open source mobile operating system. I think it’s easy to confuse “open source operating system” for something that will provide all the benefits of the Linux development model. As always, “open source” covers a wide range of development activities and licenses.

The license chosen for Symbian (the Eclipse Public License) is not the Linux kernel license (the GNU Public License v2.0). I suspect the EPL was chosen precisely for its terms so that handset manufacturers like Nokia are able to have their own proprietary extensions for which they do not have to give away the source. This is similar to Google’s license for Android, the Apache license.

Both Google and Nokia are applications companies trying to build a mobile services platform, and they have remarkably similar assets. Google has a cloud computing strength that Nokia doesn’t. They both have map information (Google drives the streets, Nokia bought NAVTEQ) and assisted GPS application ability. Nokia has hired some absolute geniuses from the ubiquitous computing world to bring network services into people’s lives through the mobile phone, whereas Google’s social acquisition, Dodgeball, was a catastrophe. Now they both have a handset platform. The difference is that Google’s is built on modern technology and they had a chance to start with a clean slate. Symbian feels very 1990s in comparison.

The real question is what do they both hope to gain by having and open sourcing a handset operating system and its core applications? First, it’s defensive (nobody wants someone else to “own the handset” and thus have a competitive advantage). But secondly, it’s aggressive. They want handset manufacturers to be able to slap Android/Symbian onto the handsets, no royalties payable, you’re welcome, and then ship those handsets to the carriers …. Android’s default free web browser, of course, will point to Google. I imagine Nokia’s strategy will be similar: they’ll open source some compelling standard apps, which are the portals to get more Nokia apps and services onto the handsets.

There’s a huge difference between Linux and the handsets, though, and I think it’s an important one. Linux’s license (the GPL) prevents people who ship Linux from including proprietary extensions. If you ship a modification to Linux, you must release the source. This means there are no privileged applications (the way Microsoft’s apps used libraries that third-party apps couldn’t), no proprietary competitive advantages in the kernel, and so the rate of improvement of every Linux distribution is maximized.

On Christmas Day 1914, the Germans and British soldiers on the World War I front stopped shooting each other, exchanged presents, and played football together. Essentially, the Linux kernel developer community is the Christmas Truce for the Unix platform developers–a place where they cooperate rather than compete … because the license dictates that they do it.

Both Google and Nokia, however, have deliberately chosen licenses that don’t encourage that kind of cessation to war. Proprietary competitive hardware and software can be put into any Android or Nokia phone at the appropriate level of the stack. I think this will slow down the success of their platforms and means neither will unlock the true potential of an open mobile platform. I believe true demilitarized openness is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for open mobile platform success.

I’d love to know what you think. Am I off the mark? Have I missed a cunning strategic play? Is this, in fact, open source history being written?

tags: , ,